Who created the new Frankenstein monster?  

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Like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State has been inadvertently spawned by the policies of those now in the lead to combat it. But will anything substantive be learned from this experience?

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindu, August 27, 2014

SavagesU.S. President Barack Obama has labelled the jihadist juggernaut that calls itself the Islamic State a “cancer,” while his Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, has called it more dangerous than al-Qaeda ever was, claiming that its threat is “beyond anything we’ve seen.” No monster has ever been born on its own. So the question is: which forces helped create this new Frankenstein?

The Islamic State is a brutal, medieval organisation whose members take pride in carrying out beheadings and flaunting the severed heads of their victims as trophies. This cannot obscure an underlying reality: the Islamic State represents a Sunni Islamist insurrection against non-Sunni rulers in disintegrating Syria and Iraq.

Indeed, the ongoing fragmentation of states along primordial lines in the arc between Israel and India is spawning de facto new entities or blocks, including Shiastan, Wahhabistan, Kurdistan, ISstan and Talibanstan. Other than Iran, Egypt and Turkey, most of the important nations from the Maghreb to Pakistan (an internally torn state that could shrink to Punjabistan or, simply, ISIstan) are modern western concoctions, with no roots in history or pre-existing identity.

The West and agendas

It is beyond dispute that the Islamic State militia — formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — emerged from the Syrian civil war, which began indigenously as a localised revolt against state brutality under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before being fuelled with externally supplied funds and weapons. From Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-training centres in Turkey and Jordan, the rebels set up a Free Syrian Army (FSA), launching attacks on government forces, as a U.S.-backed information war demonised Mr. Assad and encouraged military officers and soldiers to switch sides.

But the members of the U.S.-led coalition were never on the same page because some allies had dual agendas. While the three spearheads of the anti-Assad crusade — the U.S., Britain and France — focussed on aiding the FSA, the radical Islamist sheikhdoms such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates as well as the Islamist-leaning government in Turkey channelled their weapons and funds to more overtly Islamist groups. This splintered the Syrian opposition, marginalising the FSA and paving the way for the Islamic State’s rise.

The anti-Assad coalition indeed started off on the wrong foot by trying to speciously distinguish between “moderate” and “radical” jihadists. The line separating the two is just too blurred. Indeed, the term “moderate jihadists” is an oxymoron: Those waging jihad by the gun can never be moderate.

Invoking jihad

The U.S. and its allies made a more fundamental mistake by infusing the spirit of jihad in their campaign against Mr. Assad so as to help trigger a popular uprising in Syria. The decision to instil the spirit of jihad through television and radio broadcasts beamed to Syrians was deliberate — to provoke Syria’s majority Sunni population to rise against their secular government.

This ignored the lesson from Afghanistan (where the CIA in the 1980s ran, via Pakistan, the largest covert operation in its history) — that inciting jihad and arming “holy warriors” creates a deadly cocktail, with far-reaching and long-lasting impacts on international security. The Reagan administration openly used Islam as an ideological tool to spur armed resistance to Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

In 1985, at a White House ceremony in honour of several Afghan mujahideen — the jihadists out of which al-Qaeda evolved — President Ronald Reagan declared, “These gentlemen are the moral equivalent of America’s Founding Fathers.” Earlier in 1982, Reagan dedicated the space shuttle ‘Columbia’ to the Afghan resistance. He declared, “Just as the Columbia, we think, represents man’s finest aspirations in the field of science and technology, so too does the struggle of the Afghan people represent man’s highest aspirations for freedom. I am dedicating, on behalf of the American people, the March 22 launch of the Columbia to the people of Afghanistan.”

The Afghan war veterans came to haunt the security of many countries. Less known is the fact that the Islamic State’s self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — like Libyan militia leader Abdelhakim Belhadj (whom the CIA abducted and subjected to “extraordinary rendition”) and Chechen terrorist leader Airat Vakhitov — become radicalised while under U.S. detention. As torture chambers, U.S. detention centres have served as pressure cookers for extremism.

Mr. Obama’s Syria strategy took a page out of Reagan’s Afghan playbook. Not surprisingly, his strategy backfired. It took just two years for Syria to descend into a Somalia-style failed state under the weight of the international jihad against Mr. Assad. This helped the Islamic State not only to rise but also to use its control over northeastern Syria to stage a surprise blitzkrieg deep into Iraq this summer.

Had the U.S. and its allies refrained from arming jihadists to topple Mr. Assad, would the Islamic State have emerged as a lethal, marauding force? And would large swaths of upstream territory along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Syria and Iraq have fallen into this monster’s control? The exigencies of the topple-Assad campaign also prompted the Obama administration to turn a blind eye to the flow of Gulf and Turkish aid to the Islamic State.

A full circle

In fact, the Obama team, until recently, viewed the Islamic State as a “good” terrorist organisation in Syria but a “bad” one in Iraq, especially when it threatened to overrun the Kurdish regional capital, Erbil. In January, Mr. Obama famously dismissed the Islamic State as a local “JV team” trying to imitate al-Qaeda but without the capacity to be a threat to America. It was only after the public outrage in the U.S. over the video-recorded execution of American journalist James Foley and the flight of Iraqi Christians and Yazidis that the White House re-evaluated the threat posed by the Islamic State.

Many had cautioned against the topple-Assad campaign, fearing that extremist forces would gain control in the vacuum. Those still wedded to overthrowing Mr. Assad’s rule, however, contend that Mr. Obama’s failure to provide greater aid, including surface-to-air missiles, to the Syrian rebels created a vacuum that produced the Islamic State. In truth, more CIA arms to the increasingly ineffectual FSA would have meant a stronger and more deadly Islamic State.

As part of his strategic calculus to oust Mr. Assad, Mr. Obama failed to capitalise on the Arab Spring, which was then in full bloom. By seeking to topple a secular autocracy in Syria while simultaneously working to shield jihad-bankrolling monarchies from the Arab Spring, he ended up strengthening Islamist forces — a development reinforced by the U.S.-led overthrow of another secular Arab dictator, Muammar Qadhafi, which has turned Libya into another failed state and created a lawless jihadist citadel at Europe’s southern doorstep.

In fact, no sooner had Qadhafi been killed than Libya’s new rulers established a theocracy, with no opposition from the western powers that brought about the regime change. Indeed, the cloak of Islam helps to protect the credibility of leaders who might otherwise be seen as foreign puppets. For the same reason, the U.S. has condoned the Arab monarchs for their long-standing alliance with Islamists. It has failed to stop these cloistered royals from continuing to fund Muslim extremist groups and madrasas in other countries. The American interest in maintaining pliant regimes in oil-rich countries has trumped all other considerations.

Today, Mr. Obama’s Syria policy is coming full circle. Having portrayed Mr. Assad as a bloodthirsty monster, Washington must now accept Mr. Assad as the lesser of the two evils and work with him to defeat the larger threat of the Islamic State.

The fact that the Islamic State’s heartland remains in northern Syria means that it cannot be stopped unless the U.S. extends air strikes into Syria. As the U.S. mulls that option — for which it would need at least tacit permission from Syria, which still maintains good air defences — it is fearful of being pulled into the middle of the horrendous civil war there. It is thus discreetly urging Mr. Assad to prioritise defeating the Islamic State.

Make no mistake: like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State is a monster inadvertently spawned by the policies of those now in the lead to combat it. The question is whether anything substantive will be learned from this experience, unlike the forgotten lessons of America’s anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan. At a time when jihadist groups are gaining ground from Mali to Malaysia, Mr. Obama’s current effort to strike a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, for example, gives little hope that any lesson will be learned. U.S.-led policies toward the Islamic world have prevented a clash between civilisations by fostering a clash within a civilisation, but at serious cost to regional and international security.

(Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of Water, Peace, and War, Oxford University Press, 2014.)

(c) The Hindu, 2014.

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Deadly Geopolitical Games

If Libya, Syria and Iraq are coming undone and Ukraine has been gravely destabilized, it is the result of interventions by big powers that claim to be international-law enforcers when, in reality, they are law breakers

By Brahma Chellaney, The Hindu, July 31, 2014

Mideast Syria

A victory march by members of the brutal, medieval organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Big powers over the years have targeted specific regimes by arming rebel groups with lethal weapons, thereby destabilizing some states and contributing to the rise of dangerous extremists and terrorists. The destabilization of Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and Libya, among other states, is a result of such continuing geopolitical games.

It is the local people who get killed, maimed and uprooted by the interventions of major powers and their regional proxies. Yet those who play such games assume a moral posture to rationalize their interventionist policies and evade responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Indeed, they paint their interference in the affairs of other sovereign states as aimed at fighting the “bad” guys.

Take the blame-game over the downing of flight MH17, which was shot down by a surface-to-air missile (SAM) allegedly fired by eastern Ukraine’s Russian-speaking separatists, a number of whom have clearly been trained and armed by Russia. Russia’s aid to the separatists and Washington’s security assistance to the government in Kiev, including providing vital intelligence and sending American military advisers to Ukraine, is redolent of the pattern that prevailed during the Cold War, when the two opposing blocs waged proxy battles in countries elsewhere.

Today, with the Ukrainian military shelling rebel-held cities and Russia massing heavy weapons and troops along the frontier, the crisis threatens to escalate to a direct U.S.-Russia confrontation, especially if Moscow directly intervenes in eastern Ukraine in response to the worsening humanitarian crisis there. The United Nations says the fighting in eastern Ukraine has uprooted more than 230,000 residents. Over 27,000 of them have taken sanctuary in Russia.

After the MH17 crash, U.S. President Barack Obama was quick to hold Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, guilty in the global court of opinion over the downing and to spotlight Russian aid to the separatists. Through sanctions and diplomacy, Obama has steadily ratcheted up pressure on Putin to stop assisting the rebels. Yet Obama has had no compunction in gravely destabilizing Syria through continuing covert aid to “moderate” militants there. The aid is being channelled through the Central Intelligence Agency and the jihad-bankrolling oil sheikhdoms.

Obama set out on the mission of regime change in Syria by seizing the opportunity that opened up in 2011, when popular protests broke out in some cities against President Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic rule. The detention and torture of a group of schoolchildren, who had been caught scribbling anti-government graffiti in the city of Deraa, led to protests and demands for political reforms and a series of events that rapidly triggered an armed insurrection with external assistance.

From bases in Turkey and Jordan, the rebels — with the clandestine assistance of the U.S., Britain and France — established a Free Syrian Army, launching attacks on government forces. Washington and its allies simultaneously mounted an intense information war demonizing Assad and encouraging officers and soldiers to desert the Syrian military and join the Free Syrian Army.

It is clear three years later that their regime-change strategy has backfired: Not only has it failed to oust Assad, it has turned Syria into a failed state and led to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — a brutal, medieval organization seeking to establish a caliphate across the Middle East and beyond. With radical jihadists now dominating the scene, the Free Syrian Army has become a marginal force, despite the CIA continuing to train and arm its members in Jordan.

Had Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande not embarked on this strategy — which helped instil the spirit of jihad against the Assad regime and opened the gates to petrodollar-financed weapons to Syrian jihadists — would murderous Islamists be in control of much of northern Syria today? It was this control that served as the staging ground for the rapid advance into Iraq of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This group now is in a position to potentially use water as a weapon through its control of the upstream areas along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Syria and Iraq, including important dams.

By inadvertently turning Syria into another Afghanistan — and a threat to regional and international security — the interveners failed to heed the lessons from the CIA’s funnelling of arms to the Afghan mujahideen (or self-proclaimed “holy warriors” of Islam) in the 1980s. The funnelling of arms — partly financed by Saudi Arabia and some other oil sheikhdoms — was a multibillion-dollar operation against Soviet forces in Afghanistan that gave rise to Al Qaeda and monsters like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar, the one-eyed chief of the Taliban who remains holed up in Pakistan. It ranked as the largest covert operation in the CIA’s history.

Now consider a different case where a regime-change strategy spearheaded by the U.S., Britain and France succeeded — Libya. The ouster of Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi’s government through U.S.-led aerial bombardment in 2011, however, ended up fomenting endless conflict, bloodletting and chaos in Libya.

The virtual crumbling of the Libyan state, more ominously, has had major international implications — from the cross-border leakage of shoulder-fired SAMs from the Qaddafi-built arsenal, including to Syrian jihadists, to the flow of other Libyan weapons to Al Qaeda-linked groups in the arid lands south of the Sahara desert known as the Sahel region. Nigeria’s Boko Haram extremists have also tapped the Libyan arms bazaar.

The weapons that Qatar and, on a smaller scale, the United Arab Emirates shipped to Libyan rebels with U.S. approval, including machine guns, automatic rifles and ammunition, have not only destabilized Libya but also undermined security in Mali, Niger and Chad. These weapons had been handed out like candy to foment the uprising against Qaddafi.

There cannot be better proof of how the toppling of Qaddafi has boomeranged than the fact that the U.S., whose ambassador was killed in a 2012 militant attack in Benghazi, the supposed capital of the Libyan “revolution,” has now shut its embassy in Tripoli, citing increasing lawlessness. The predawn evacuation of its entire embassy staff to Tunisia, with U.S. warplanes providing air cover, represented a public admission of defeat.

The plain truth is that it is easier for outside forces to topple or undermine a regime than to build stability and security in the targeted country. With neighbourhoods becoming battlefields, Iraq, Syria and Libya are coming undone. Another disintegrating state is Afghanistan, where Obama is seeking to end the longest war in American history.

Such is the United Nations’ marginalization in international relations that it is becoming irrelevant to the raging conflicts. To make matters worse, the UN Security Council’s five permanent members, although tasked by the UN Charter to preserve international peace and security, have helped spark or fuel regional conflicts and aided the rise of insurgent groups through their interventionist and arms-transfer policies. These five powers — all nuclear-armed — account for more than 80 per cent of the world’s official exports of conventional weapons and most of the unofficial transfers. Chinese arms, for example, have proliferated to a number of guerrilla groups active in Africa and Asia, including insurgents in India’s northeast.

The only mechanism to enforce international law is the Security Council. Yet its permanent members have repeatedly demonstrated that great powers use, not respect, international law. They have a long history of ignoring international rules when these conflict with their plans. In other words, the international-law enforcers are the leading law breakers.

Obama, in toppling Qaddafi through the use of air power, and Putin, in annexing Crimea, paradoxically cited the same moral principle that has no force in international law — “responsibility to protect.” Indeed, the transition from the 20th to the 21st centuries heralded the open flouting of international law, as represented by the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Against this background, it is scarcely a surprise that, despite the continuing rhetoric of a rules-based international order, the world is witnessing the triumph of brute force in the 21st century.

If the Security Council is to act more responsibly, its permanent members must look honestly at what they are doing to undermine international peace and security. This can happen only if the Council’s permanent membership is enlarged and the veto power abolished to make decision-making in that body truly democratic.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Oxford University Press, 2014).

(c) The Hindu, 2014.

To prevent another MH17, examine root causes

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By Brahma ChellaneyNikkie Asian Review

Despite the international outrage over its tragic fate, Malaysia Airlines’ MH17 is not the first civilian airliner thought to have been shot down by rebels with an anti-aircraft missile. Nor will it be the last, unless urgent steps are taken internationally to avert another such disaster.

A Buk M-23 air defense missile system is seen on display during an international air show outside Moscow. © Reuters

Next to chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, the greatest threat to international security and civilian safety is posed by surface-to-air missiles, including the shoulder-fired types known as man-portable air defense systems, or “manpads.” Yet major powers have supplied such missiles to rebel groups in different parts of the world for decades.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there are at least 500,000 manpads in state or nonstate hands in more than 100 countries. Estimates of the number of shoulder-fired SAMs in terrorist or rebel hands range up to 150,000. In Afghanistan alone, U.S. forces have secured thousands of such weapons since intervening in 2001.

To be sure, MH17 fell victim to a vicious Russian-U.S. proxy war over Ukraine that has destabilized that country and helped foment a raging civil war there. The MH17 crash, coming on the heels of a new round of American sanctions against Moscow, promises to further escalate this proxy conflict, pitting the U.S. and Russia against each other in a new style of Cold War.

The downing of the passenger plane occurred at a time when the U.S.-backed government in Kiev was waging artillery and air attacks on cities held by pro-Russian separatists. The fighting has created a humanitarian crisis and prompted rebels and the regime to declare rival no-fly zones over parts of eastern Ukraine.

In truth, this was a tragedy waiting to happen. In the absence of direct communication, tracking satellites, air traffic control over rebel-held territory, or the technology to detect a civilian plane’s transponder, it was easy for a ground unit to mistake a civil airliner for a military transport aircraft. A U.S. Federal Aviation Administration notice expressed concern over the potential for misidentification of civilian aircraft over eastern Ukraine, although the institution banned American flights over the area only after the MH17 disaster.

Amid increasingly murky geopolitical issues, the question that needs to be asked is why a number of airlines were still flying over a major battle zone. The rebels had already demonstrated their anti-aircraft capability on July 14, shooting down a Ukrainian military transport plane. That was three days before MH17 went down.

Some carriers, including Korean Airlines, Qantas Airways, Asiana Airlines, and Taiwan’s China Airlines, had stopped using Ukrainian airspace by April. Those that continued to overfly rebel-controlled territory appeared to take their cue from one side in the armed conflict — the Ukrainian government in Kiev — throwing caution to the wind.

There is a much bigger question: Given the proliferation of anti-aircraft weapons in the hands of nonstate actors, how can the world ensure that another commercial jetliner is not shot down? This question assumes greater significance because the MH17 incident shows that the international community has failed to learn from the downing of a number of civilian airliners by rebels in the past.

Today, the focus is rightly on Russia’s alleged role in training and arming separatists in eastern Ukraine with manpads and the more lethal Buk-M2E missile launch platform, which is suspected to have brought down MH17 with a single SA-11 Gadfly missile. The U.S. has taken the lead in holding Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, guilty in the global court of opinion. But Washington has itself armed rebels elsewhere with anti-aircraft weapons that have brought down passenger planes.

Insurgents battling Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s downed three passenger aircraft with U.S.-supplied missiles. The deadliest incident occurred on Sept. 4, 1985, when rebels shot down a Soviet-built Antonov-26 aircraft of Bakhtar Afghan Airlines near Kandahar city with a SAM, killing 52 people. Another 29 people were killed on April 10, 1988, when a rebel-launched missile downed a second Afghan AN-26 passenger jet.

In the third case, an Ariana Afghan Airlines’ McDonnell Douglas DC-10, with about 300 passengers aboard, was struck by an insurgent-fired missile as it was preparing to land in Kabul on Sept. 21, 1984. Although the plane suffered extensive damage, including to two of its three hydraulic systems, it crash-landed with no fatalities.

Before the MH17 tragedy unfolded, U.S. President Barack Obama was seriously considering transferring manpads to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, according to a report in Time magazine. After arming the “moderate” jihadists in Syria with sophisticated TOW anti-tank missiles, the White House hoped that the manpads would be a “game-changer” there, just as the U.S. supply of Stinger missiles to rebels in the 1980s turned the tide of the war against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. To moderate the risks from such transfers, the administration was considering “building obsolescence” into the missiles, and setting a remote “kill switch” to render any missile useless if it were captured by a group linked to al-Qaida.

The MH17 episode, however, makes such transfers politically difficult. The more radical Syrian groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, are already armed with a limited number of manpads, which they secured from other sources, including Libyan militias and perhaps the Saudi and Qatari regimes. This is apparent from the videos they have posted online, including one that purports to show a Syrian government aircraft being shot down with a shoulder-fired SAM.

The main difference between heat-seeking manpads and large, radar-guided, vehicle-based systems such as Buk is that the latter can target aircraft at cruising altitude. Shoulder-fired missile systems have a limited strike range of about 6km, but can be transported and hidden easily. Manpads are among terrorism’s most deadly weapons, capable of bringing down an aircraft that has just taken off or is about to land.

They thus pose a potent threat. Guerrillas have used them with stunning effect, reportedly downing two Boeing 737s in Angola in 1983 and 1984 respectively, and a Congo Airlines Boeing 727 in 1998, killing a total of 171 people. In September 1993, rebels shot down two Tupolev planes of Transair Georgia in two straight days near the city of Sukhumi, Abkhazia, leaving 135 people dead.

In November 2003, the left wing of a DHL cargo Airbus A300 was struck by a missile while departing Baghdad. In another attack, two SA-7 missiles were fired at an Arkia Israeli Airlines Boeing 757 on Nov. 28, 2002, when it took off from Mombasa, Kenya. The rockets, however, missed the aircraft.

Against this background, the MH17 crash has ignited a new debate on how to safeguard civil aircraft from SAMs. Technical options are available, such as installing counter attack technology on aircraft. The U.S. is seeking to draw on existing military technology to develop missile-defense systems for commercial aircraft. Missile countermeasure systems, however, carry a high price tag, estimated at $1 million to $3 million per aircraft, according to a Congressional Research Service report. The weight of such systems, moreover, can potentially decrease an aircraft’s fuel efficiency, adding to operating costs.

A more cost-effective approach to countering missile threats to civil aircraft would be political, focusing on better geopolitics, improved regional security, enhanced safety measures in the vicinity of airports, and modified flight operations and air traffic procedures to minimize risks.

Many of the SAMs that have been used against passenger jets by insurgents or are currently in rebel possession have been supplied by big powers as part of a strategy targeting specific regimes.

Some such missiles have also proliferated among nonstate actors because of various countries’ dysfunctions and a flourishing black market. For example, the enduring chaos and conflict in Libya following the 2011 regime change effected by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has facilitated international trafficking of manpads — including SA-7s, the early Soviet equivalent of American Stingers — from the arsenal built by Moammar Gadhafi’s government.

Currently there is no legal restriction on transferring or trading SAMs between countries or entities, although the Wassenaar Arrangement on export controls for conventional arms and dual-use technologies has strengthened its guidelines on manpads. Clearly, an international treaty is needed to bar states from transferring SAMs to nonstate actors. Such a pact could open the path to concerted international action against the thriving black market in such weapons — and avoid another disaster such as the MH17 tragedy.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a geostrategist and the author, most recently of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

Copyright © 2014 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved.

How do we avert a thirsty future?

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Special to The Globe and Mail, July 15, 2014

There is a tongue-in-cheek saying in America – attributed to Mark Twain, who lived through the early phase of the California Water Wars – that “whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting over.” It highlights the consequences, even if somewhat apocryphally, as ever-scarcer water resources create a parched world. California is currently reeling under its worst drought in modern times.

Adequate availability of water, food and energy is critical to global security. Water – the sustainer of life and livelihoods – is already the world’s most exploited natural resource. With nature’s capacity for providing renewable freshwater lagging behind humanity’s current rate of utilization, tomorrow’s water is being used to meet today’s need.

Consequently, the resources of shared rivers, aquifers and lakes have become the target of rival appropriation plans. Canada, which is the Saudi Arabia of the freshwater world, is fortunate to be blessed with exceptional water wealth. But more than half of the global population lives in conditions of water distress.

The struggle for water is exacerbating effects on the earth’s ecosystems. Groundwater depletion, for its part, is affecting natural stream flows, groundwater-fed wetlands and lakes, and related ecosystems.

If resources like water are degraded and depleted, environmental refugees will follow. Sanaa in Yemen risks becoming the first capital city to run out of water. If Bangladesh bears the main impact of China’s damming of River Brahmaputra, the resulting exodus of thirsty refugees will compound India’s security challenges.

Silent water wars between states, meanwhile, are already being waged in several regions, including by building dams on international rivers and by resorting to coercive diplomacy to prevent such construction. Examples include China’s frenetic upstream dam building in its borderlands and downriver Egypt’s threats of military reprisals against the ongoing Ethiopian construction of a large dam on the Blue Nile.

The yearly global economic losses from water shortages are conservatively estimated at $260-billion. Water-stressed South Korea is encouraging its corporate giants to produce water-intensive items — from food to steel — for the home market in overseas lands. But this strategy is creating problems elsewhere. For instance, a South Korean contract to lease as much as half of all arable land in Madagascar — a large Indian Ocean island-nation — triggered a powerful grassroots backlash that toppled the country’s democratically elected president in 2009.

Unlike mineral ores, fossils fuels, and resources from the biosphere such as fish and timber, water (unless bottled) is not a globally traded commodity. But the human population has doubled since 1970 alone, while the global economy has grown even faster.

Lifestyle changes have become a key driver of water stress. In East and Southeast Asia, for example, traditional diets have been transformed in just one generation, becoming much meatier. Meat production is highly water-intensive. If the world stopped diverting food to feed livestock and produce biofuels, it could not only abolish hunger but also feed a four-billion-larger population, according to a University of Minnesota study.

Compounding the diet-change impacts on the global water situation is the increasing body mass index (BMI) of humans in recent decades, with the prevalence of obesity doubling since the 1980s. Obesity rates in important economies now range from 33 per cent in the United States and 26.2 per cent in Canada to 5.7 per cent in China and 1.9 per cent in India. Heavier citizens make heavier demands on natural resources, especially water and energy. A study published in the British journal BMC Public Health found that if the rest of the world had the same average BMI as Americans, it would be equivalent to adding nearly an extra billion people to the global population, with major implications for the world’s water situation.

The future of human civilization hinges on sustainable development, with water at the centre of that challenge. The world can ill-afford to waste time – or water – to find ways to avert a thirsty future.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of Water, Peace and War.

(c) The Globe and Mail, 2014.

Alarm Bells in Asia

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, A Project Syndicate column internationally syndicated

Photo of Brahma ChellaneyThe deteriorating situation in Ukraine and rising tensions between Russia and the United States threaten to bury US President Barack Obama’s floundering “pivot” toward Asia – the world’s most vibrant (but also possibly its most combustible) continent. Obama’s tour of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines will do little to rescue the pivot or put his regional foreign policy on a sound footing.

In fact, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is just the latest reason that the pivot – which has been rebranded as a “rebalancing” – has failed to gain traction. A slew of other factors – including America’s foreign-policy preoccupation with the Muslim world, Obama’s reluctance to challenge an increasingly assertive China, declining US defense outlays, and diminished US leadership on the world stage – were already working against it.

The reality is that rising anxiety among Asian countries about China’s increasingly muscular foreign policy has presented the US with an important opportunity to recapture its central role in the region by strengthening old alliances and building new partnerships. But the US has largely squandered its chance, allowing China to continue to broaden its territorial claims.

Indeed, over the last two years, America’s Asian allies and partners have received three jarring wake-up calls, all of which have delivered the same clear message: the US cannot be relied upon to manage China’s rise effectively.

0020ee8c19dde118eb74caa7b7874fa5.landscapeThe first such signal came in the form of Obama’s silence when China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in July 2012. The move – which established a model for China to annex other disputed territories – occurred despite a US-brokered deal for a mutual withdrawal of Chinese and Philippine vessels from the area. Obama’s apparent indifference to America’s commitment to the Philippines under the 1951 mutual-defense treaty, which it reaffirmed in 2011, encouraged China to seize the Second Thomas Shoal, which is also claimed by the Philippines.

America’s Asian allies received a second wake-up call when China unilaterally established an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering territories that it claims (but does not control) in the East China Sea – a dangerous new precedent in international relations. China then demanded that all aircraft transiting the zone – whether headed for Chinese airspace or not – submit flight plans in advance.

Instead of demonstrating its disapproval by postponing Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Beijing, the US government advised commercial airlines to respect China’s self-declared ADIZ. Japan, by contrast, told its carriers to disregard China’s demand – an indication of the growing disconnect in US-Japanese relations.

The third wake-up call comes from Ukraine. The US has responded to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea by distancing itself from the “Budapest Memorandum,” the pact that US President Bill Clinton signed in 1994 committing the US to safeguard Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing its nuclear arsenal.

The first two wake-up calls highlighted the Obama administration’s unwillingness to do anything that could disrupt its close engagement with China, a country that is now central to US interests. The third was even more ominous: America’s own vital interests must be directly at stake for it to do what is necessary to uphold another country’s territorial integrity – even a country that it has pledged to protect.

The world is witnessing the triumph of brute power in the twenty-first century. Obama was quick to rule out any US military response to Russia’s Crimea takeover. Likewise, as China has stepped up efforts to upend the regional status quo – both territorial and riparian – the US has dithered, doing little to reassure its jittery Asian allies.

Instead, the US has pursued a neutral course, which it hopes will enable it to avoid being dragged into a military confrontation over countries’ conflicting territorial claims. To this end, the US has addressed its calls for restraint not only to China, but also to its own allies.

But America’s own restraint – whether in response to Russia’s forcible absorption of Crimea or to China’s creeping, covert warfare – has brought no benefits to its allies. In fact, its efforts to avoid confrontation at all costs could inadvertently spur game-changing – and potentially destabilizing – geopolitical developments.

Most important, America’s sanctions-driven policy toward Russia is likely to force the Kremlin to initiate its own pivot toward Asia – particularly toward energy-hungry, cash-rich China. At the same time, a showdown with Russia will compel the US to court China more actively. In a new Cold War scenario, China would thus be the big winner, gaining a wide diplomatic berth to pursue its territorial ambitions.

While the US propitiates China, countries like Japan, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam are being forced to accept that they will have to contend with Chinese military incursions on their own. That is why they are stepping up efforts to build credible military capabilities.

This trend could lead to the resurgence of militarily independent Asian powers that remain close strategic friends of the US. In this sense, they would be following in the footsteps of two of America’s closest allies – the United Kingdom and France – which have built formidable deterrent capacities, rather than entrust their security to the US. This would be a game-changing development for Asia, the US, and the entire world.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

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Asia’s Fault Lines Stoke Tensions

By Brahma ChellaneyThe Transatlantic Academy

Asia’s Fault Lines Stoke Tensions

Asia’s dramatic economic rise led some analysts to hastily conclude that the relative decline of the West is inevitable. Developments since 2013 highlight that dangerous new fault lines have emerged in Asia, posing a major risk to peace, stability and prosperity in the world’s largest and most populous continent. The developments create a diplomatic opening for the transatlantic alliance to play a more active role in shaping Asia’s trajectory positively.

Asia today is at a defining moment in its history. Yet the international spotlight on its rapid economic ascent has obscured the serious challenges it confronts. These challenges range from recrudescence of territorial and maritime disputes and increasingly fervent nationalism to sharpening competition over natural resources and toxic historical legacies that weigh down its major interstate relationships.

Two fault lines in particular are putting Asia’s sustained rise at risk, with the adverse geopolitical trends carrying significant ramifications for global markets. With Asia’s political integration badly lagging behind its economic integration, one fault line is represented by the widening gap between politics and economics. Asia is the only continent other than Africa where political integration has failed to take off.

The other fault line is represented by the so-called history problem — or how the past threatens to imperil Asia’s present and future. Historical distortions and a failure to come to terms with the past have spurred competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms.

Asian disputes over territories, war memorials, fishing rights, natural resource reserves, and textbooks are linked with history. Yet historical narratives are never free of bias or embellishment. Objective history, after all, is an oxymoron, with historical narratives often embodying cherished national myths. Historians who dare to probe such myths through factbased interrogation can face backlash or even persecution, especially in autocratic states.

Respect for boundaries is a prerequisite to peace and stability on any continent. Europe has built its peace on that principle, with a number of European states learning to live with boundaries that they don’t like. But in Asia, renewed attempts to disturb the territorial status quo are stirring geopolitical tensions and fueling rivalries.

In particular, an increasingly muscular China harps on historical grievances — real or imaginary — to justify its claims to territories and fishing areas long held by others. Whether it is strategic islands in the South and East China Seas or the resource-rich Himalayan Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, China is dangling the threat of force to assert its claims.

The transatlantic relationship, through diplomatic outreach, can help underscore the imperative for Asia to get rid of its baggage of history in order to chart a more stable and prosperous future. After all, the slowing of Asian economic growth only increases the risks from the new fault lines. The risks are also heightened by Asia’s lack of a security framework, with even its regional consultation mechanisms remaining weak.

Unlike Europe’s bloody wars of the first half of the twentieth century, which have made war there unthinkable today, the wars in Asia in the second half of the twentieth century only sharpened rivalries, fostering a bitter legacy. Several interstate wars have been fought in Asia since 1950 — when the Korean War and the annexation of Tibet started — without resolving the underlying disputes.

As we commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I, it is important to remember that Europe was at the time even more integrated by trade and investment than Asia is today, with its royal families interrelated by marriage. Yet Europe’s disparate economic and political paths led to World War I. Asia thus must realize that economic interdependence, amid rising political tensions between its major countries, cannot guarantee peace by itself.

Several Asian sub-regions currently are in flux. Although the U.S. and European role in Asia is viewed by a majority of Asian states as a stabilizing influence, the U.S. remains primarily focused on the Islamic world. President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address in January, did not even mention Asia.

Obama’s supposed policy shift toward Asia — once known as a pivot but now rebranded as a rebalance — has always seemed more rhetorical than real. To make the promise of his “pivot” real, Obama has still to convince Congress at home — and America’s Asian allies and partners — that he means to devote more military, diplomatic and economic attention to Asia as well as stand up to China’s territorial creep.

China’s rift with fellow communist state North Korea — increasingly an estranged and embittered ally — opens diplomatic space for the U.S. and Europe to help transform Northeast Asia’s fraught geopolitics. After all, Beijing today risks “losing” North Korea, the way its once-tight hold on Myanmar has slipped dramatically. China’s increasing territorial assertiveness has also strained itsrelations with several other neighbors, stretching from Japan to the Philippines and Vietnam to India.

A growing chasm between China’s assertive, nationalistic president, Xi Jinping, and North Korea’s defiant young dictator, Kim Jong-Un, has thrown the bilateral relationship into a tailspin. The 31-year-old Kim, the world’s youngest head of state, has presented himself as a tough leader who will not allow China to treat North Korea as a vassal state.

Unlike the U.S. opening with Myanmar, which led to Obama’s historic visit to that country in 2012, any American engagement with North Korea would have to center on a deal to denuclearize it. But such a deal will remain elusive as long as Washington depends on Beijing to “soften” Pyongyang. Washington’s reliance on Beijing as a diplomatic intermediary indeed is a sore point with yongyang, which has sought direct engagement with the United States to counteract China’s leverage over it.

More broadly, the resurgent territorial, maritime and history disputes in Asia highlight that securing Asian peace and stability hinges fundamentally on respect for existing borders. Unless that happens, it is far from certain that Asia will be able to spearhead global growth or shape a new world order. America’s neutrality on sovereignty disputes between China and its neighbors, however, could weaken its bilateral security alliances.

This article was originally published in “the State of the Transatlantic World.”
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India Risks Losing Out in a “Contest of Ideas”  

By Brahma Chellaney

The National Bureau of Asian Research

India has watched with unease the Ukraine-related developments that have triggered Europe’s most serious geopolitical crisis since the end of the Cold War. These events threaten to unleash a new Cold War, or at least a renewed East-West ideological struggle. U.S. President Barack Obama’s new sanctions-based approach toward Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea sets the stage for a potential clash between Western democracy and what some U.S. ideologues have described as “Putinism.” Obama himself calls the crisis a “contest of ideas.” The question many are asking is whether this portends the advent of an ominous new era.

Russia has gained little from the annexation of Crimea, which was already under its de facto control. But it has displayed contempt for international law and lost a government in Kiev that had been friendly to Russian interests. Russia also faces sanctions-related costs at a time when its economy is already fragile and its borders remain precarious.

Yet the “contest of ideas” threatens to unhinge Obama’s rebalance toward Asia. Even before the Ukraine crisis began, many wondered whether this policy would acquire concrete strategic content or remain largely a rhetorical repackaging of policies begun under Obama’s predecessor. Now the United States could be forced to focus its attention on the states on Russia’s periphery, increasing the likelihood of a new Cold War. Thus far, Washington’s rebalance to Asia has remained more rhetorical than real, in part because of U.S. foreign policy’s preoccupation with the Middle East. Furthermore, the Obama administration has been reluctant to say or do anything that might raise Beijing’s hackles.

Asian states that rely on the United States as their security guarantor were jolted by Obama’s inaction on the 2012 Chinese capture of Scarborough Shoal, located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. This development occurred despite a U.S.-brokered deal under which both Beijing and Manila agreed to withdraw their vessels from the area. Obama’s silence on the capture, coupled with his administration’s apathetic attitude to the U.S. commitment to the Philippines under the Mutual Defence Treaty, emboldened China to effectively seize a second Philippine-claimed shoal, the Second Thomas/Ayungin Shoal, without attempting to evict the eight Filipino sailors living there.

Another jolt came when China established an air defense identification zone that usurped international airspace over the East China Sea and extended to Japanese- and South Korean-controlled islands or rocks. Washington refrained from postponing Vice President Joe Biden’s previously scheduled trip to Beijing or otherwise demonstrating its disapproval of the Chinese action beyond verbal statements but advised U.S. commercial airlines to respect the zone. This response conflicted with Japan’s advice to its commercial airlines to ignore China’s demand that they file their flight plans through the zone in advance.

These two events showed that the Obama administration, despite its rebalance toward Asia, will not act in ways detrimental to the United States’ close engagement with China. Washington indeed has declined to take sides in the bilateral disputes between China and its neighbors—unless, of course, U.S. interests are directly at stake, such as in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The Obama administration has also charted a course of neutrality on the recrudescence of Sino-Indian and Sino-Japanese territorial disputes.

Against this background, a protracted showdown with Russia over Ukraine would leave even less space for the United States to rebalance toward Asia. However, it will create greater space for China to disturb the territorial status quo in Asia. In a new Cold War setting, it will not be the United States but Russia that would likely pivot toward Asia. A sanctions-centered U.S. policy of selective containment of Russia could compel Moscow to cozy up with China, including to escape containment and to promote energy outflows and capital inflows. This may be particularly true if U.S. sanctions seek to bar Western investments in the Russian energy sector—a move that could prompt Moscow to reverse course and accept Chinese investments in “strategic” fields. Western sanctions against Russia could thus enable Beijing to gain important benefits, including more favorable terms for Russian energy resources and greater access to the Russian market for Chinese goods. Put simply, the only power likely to gain geopolitically from the recent turn of events in Ukraine is China, which remains a revolutionary power bent on upending the status quo in Asia. Its growing geopolitical heft has emboldened its muscle-flexing and territorial nibbling.

In order to isolate Russian president Vladimir Putin, Obama could be tempted to cede more space to Beijing in Asia. China’s geopolitical gains would be further solidified if the U.S. jettisons its post–Cold War policy of seeking to influence Russia’s conduct through engagement and integration. The United States is closing the door to Russian accession to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and effectively ousting Russia from the group of eight (G-8) by making it the group of seven again—an action that can only accelerate that institution’s growing irrelevance in international relations.

India, by contrast, could be a loser in a second Cold War that redivides states along a bipolar axis. India lost out in the first Cold War because of its reluctance to take sides. Although India has progressed from doctrinaire nonalignment to geopolitical pragmatism, it sees itself as a bridge between the East and the West, not as a partisan. In the Ukraine crisis, New Delhi has treaded cautiously, supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity but opposing sanctions on Russia. If a new Cold War is to be averted, a diplomatic solution must both protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and respect Russia’s legitimate security interests. Ukraine should remain neutral between the East and the West—a sovereign buffer between NATO and Russia. India could help broker such a solution, which, while ensuring European peace, would also contribute to Asian security.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the independent Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. His latest book is Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (2013).

This is one of five essays in the roundtable “Asia-Pacific Perspectives on the Ukraine Crisis.” Download all five essays in PDF format or access them online below.

1. Crimea: A Silver Lining for the United States’ Asian Allies? By Rory Medcalf

2. India Risks Losing Out in a “Contest of Ideas” By Brahma Chellaney

3. Taiwan Is No Crimea, But… By Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang

4. Japan’s “Proactive Contribution to Peace” and the Annexation of Crimea By Tetsuo Kotani

5. The Korean Angle on Crimean Fallout: America’s Perception Gap By Seong-hyon Lee

© 2014 The National Bureau of Asian Research